Watching Lifetime movies are one of my favorite pastimes during the holidays. It’s the best escapism. They usually start out introducing us to a quaint town just outside of Big City, USA. We meet our main character, who is likely touching up some beautifully handmade bow on their tree or sipping a cup of coffee or cocoa, while looking out a window with a wondering gaze. Not too long after this our main character encounters calamity. They can’t get home in time for Thanksgiving, they’re unrequited love introduces them to their new beau, and they’re crushed, or they’re hosting Christmas and one thing after another goes wrong. But then the town finds out and rallies around them, just the right amount of chaos ensues and somehow, we land at our happy ending. It’s a predictably cheesy ride, and I would have it no other way.
The reason I love these movies so much is because they often depict the opposite of real life. After nearly two years of a pandemic, the immense loss our world has taken on means there will certainly be loved ones missing. Those who have yet to attain romantic love or are moving through feelings of ambiguous loss due to divorce or unrealized parenthood can be especially affected during a season of highly commercialized togetherness. And for those hosts who pride themselves in creating picture-perfect moments, housing family, and cooking an elaborate meal, the anxiety of getting together amidst a still uncertain pandemic can be have a greater impact one’s physical and mental health. The holidays for many of us will be at best, bittersweet.
As we step into this season a bit more liberated from COVID and perhaps even more divided, we are also stepping into the reality of what it will mean to commune with our families face-to-face again and/or celebrate without them. Below are some suggestions to help you move through these times minimally unscathed:
Revisit Your Holiday Past. When you think back to years past and how things went, what didn’t go well? Did you make any silent vows to never do ___ again? If so, listen to past-you and act accordingly. While some quirks of family and festivities can be hard to avoid, you don’t have to accept several days of suffering to keep the peace, nor should you feel like you have to emotionally armor up to battle whatever your family throws at you. Reflect on the past, determine your boundaries and stand lovingly firm in them.
Don’t be Afraid to Break with Tradition. Family gatherings can be traumatizing or triggering. If you feel like you are walking into situation that is less than affirming or downright abusive, don’t feel beholden to keep up traditions that are draining or harmful. See this as an opportunity to create new traditions for yourself that are uplifting. This could look like engaging with your family of choice, creating new solo rituals, or planning smaller gatherings with specific family members that are safe to be with.
Make it a Team Effort. Creating a game plan for family gatherings should be at the top of your family’s holiday to-do list. Key topics to discuss:
•Length of visit—When does your social battery run out? 2 hours? 4 hours? Can you hang out with your family all night? Understand each person’s threshold early and create a game plan that allows everyone to engage at a level comfortable for them and pull out when they feel depleted.
•Shared Language—Code words and signals can help you communicate the need for break or save each other from certain conversations. Did I hear you say nutmeg? I saw you rub your shoulders, let’s step outside for bit or I’ll take the baby for a while. Keep a watchful eye on each other, and check in.
•Family Culture—Introducing someone new, or are you the one being introduced? Discussing the family culture and dynamics beforehand will spare all parties involved some unnecessary awkwardness.
While our holiday experiences may never hold a match to the simplicity of a Lifetime movie, they are survivable and if we invest a little time in planning, they can also be fun!
Jewel Spencer, ALMFT
Marriage & Family Therapist
CORE – Center of Relational Empowerment